It was 7:30 a.m., and the hallways of Josh Knott's high school were silent. Soon the school would bustle with the excited chatter of students and the rattle of slamming lockers. But now, 45 minutes before class started, the campus was deserted except for several teachers. And Josh.
The high school senior sat in the computer lab, intensely staring at the screen. That day, he could easily have slept in and made it to class just as the first bell rang. But to Josh, catching a few extra z's was much less important than the scholarship application he'd arrived early to complete. The application meant the possibility of earning some additional cash for college—and Josh knew how important that money was to his future.
"When I was looking at schools my senior year, I realized how expensive college was," says Josh, now a sophomore at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. "The price tags worried me."
But instead of freaking out over the high cost of college, Josh decided to do something about it. In fact, he applied for almost any scholarship that came his way—even those that seemed like a long shot.
In the midst of his search for scholarships, Josh was certain he'd never win one sponsored by a national civic organization. After all, he was competing against dozens of other applicants across the state for the award. But he decided to take a stab at the application anyway—and walked away $800 richer. That's why he encourages other students to apply for as many scholarships as possible, even if odds are slim you'll receive the award.
"Even if you don't think your chances are very good, it's always worth it to try," says Josh.
Katie Gregory, a sophomore at King College in Bristol, Tennessee, knows the value of scholarships. A real veteran at scholarship applications, Katie completed at least a dozen applications and received almost half of the scholarships, including four local ones. Her suggestion: Thoroughly comb your hometown in search of funds.
"I was impressed by the generosity of organizations in the community," she says. "I really was surprised by how much the community gives to students each year."
But she's quick to admit the scholarships she received weren't merely handed to her. Applying for scholarships often requires hours of pondering essay questions, compiling lists of honors and organizing mounds of paperwork—activities that can be tough to juggle with a part-time job, schoolwork and extra curricular activities.
"Applying for scholarship money was really stressful," Katie says. "But even though it's a lot to deal with and a lot of essays to write, it really does pay off when you start receiving the letters that you've been accepted for scholarships."
But Start Early!
Josh ended up with several thousand dollars to apply to his college expenses, but he might have headed to college with even more cash if he'd started searching for financial aid earlier. Although he'd saved for several years, he didn't seriously start looking for college cash until his senior year in high school.
"I started searching a little late—later than I should have," he admits. "So I really had to hustle to meet some of the deadlines."
Katie certainly knows the value of starting the financial aid search early.
"In the beginning, looking at schools and King in particular, it seemed so impossible because of the price," she says. "My family just thought we'd dig in and start trying."
Katie began "digging in" early in her junior year. One of the first things she did was pay close attention to the scholarship announcements in her high school's daily bulletin. She also became "buddies" with her guidance counselor.
"I always watched the announcements and just made sure I picked up the applications from the guidance office," she says. "The counselors were helpful and always made sure they let us know when there were applications available."
Call the College
But not even a top-notch high school guidance office may be enough preparation for the daunting task of finding financial aid for college. Just ask Stephanie Roberts, a junior at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
"I wanted to go to Samford," Stephanie says. "But when I got the stuff in the mail with the tuition amount, I was in tears."
Stephanie's disappointment didn't last long, however. Almost immediately after she received financial aid notification in the mail, Stephanie called Sam ford's financial aid office and discovered that a school's "sticker price" is rarely what you end up paying. She was able to secure several grants from Sam ford, including one offered through her academic major. Tapping into the college's resources pushed her closer to being able to afford her dream school—and dried those tears.
"Financial aid counselors really take an active role in trying to help you," she says. "If the school wants you to come, they're going to try to find a way for you to get there."
Get the Word Out
Besides going to the college's financial aid office, Stephanie also told relatives, friends and fellow church members about her need.
Stephanie's church responded by promising her a hefty scholarship. Not only that, but her need prompted the church to establish a $1,000 scholarship award every semester to an eligible church member. Stephanie's willingness to express her financial need not only helped her, but it will also help many students who come after her.
The experience has taught Stephanie a lot about taking the initiative while searching for financial aid—not to mention the value of talking it up.
"That money from my church really helps," she says. "But to get money like this, you've got to ask."
There's Money in Grades
Of course, good grades and solid ACT and SAT scores can also lead to scholarship cash. But to take advantage of this possibility, Josh knew he'd have to work a little harder. After taking his ACT, he discovered his scores in some categories might prevent him from qualifying for certain school-offered scholarships. So he decided to retake the grueling test. Filling in all those little bubbles was worth it. Josh's scores improved quite a bit, increasing his eligibility for financial aid.
Standardized test scores are certainly one factor that financial aid officers, scholarship donors and others consider when doling out dough. But, as Josh discovered, an impressive grade report is another way to separate yourself from the pack.
"To get noticed, to be successful at finding financial aid, I think you've got to find something that separates you from the rest—something that puts you in a different category from everyone else," he says. "Grades are one way to do that."
Josh followed that philosophy throughout high school, hitting the books not just to ensure admission to college, but also to increase his chances of earning money down the road.
"I always knew I could get into college, but my main motivation was to earn scholarships," he says. "I worked hard to get good grades."
Grades were pretty important to Katie, too. But now, she wishes she'd made them an even bigger priority.
"I always tried to make A's and B's," she says. "My senior year I was a little more driven to focus on class rank and GPA. But I don't think I really had my sights set on doing it for scholarship reasons until my senior year. That's something I wish I'd been a little more aware of."
Still Need Cash?
You may hit the jackpot during the scholarship search—or you may not. Even if you do, you still may have college expenses left to cover. So what's next?
Katie suggests applying for the federal work-study program, which allows students to hold paying jobs on campus. As a freshman she did work-study in the admissions office, which she says was a great experience. And as a bonus, she's gained a little extra spending money from the job.
"At King your work-study money goes straight to you," she says, "so I've been able to save some of it for tuition and books. I also use it for things I have to buy now that I'm on my own."
Before arriving on campus, Josh uncovered another source of financial aid: a federal loan, which, along with his work-study job at the college fitness center, helped finance his first year. Although he benefited from such opportunities, he stresses that the paperwork involved in applying for loans and other forms of financial aid can be overwhelming, especially if you're not a finance whiz. That's why he recommends enlisting help.
"There's a lot of it to do," he says. "I filled out as much as I could, and I asked my parents for help with the tougher financial details."
The Lasting Benefits
For Katie, the benefits of searching for financial aid extended beyond just getting money. Her search also gave her an increased sense of responsibility that's helped prepare her to face life after college.
"The search for financial aid is one of the first big responsibilities you'll have as you enter college," she says.
For Josh, the best "benefit" was seeing God provide for his needs.
"I thought it was a long shot for me to go to a private Christian liberal arts school like John Brown," he says. "But it's doable, no matter what your goal is or where you want to go. Trust God that it's going to work out."
5 Steps to Finding College Cash
1. Start Early. You're probably tired of hearing this by now. But it's true. The sooner you begin to search for financial aid options, the better chance you'll have at getting the dollars you need.
2. Search Everywhere. Begin with your high school guidance counselor. Ask about the different types of aid and how you should go about getting them. (Your counselor should also be able to direct you toward books or Web sites that are loaded with scholarship information.) Also, check with the financial aid office at the schools you're considering. Like Stephanie in "Cash Quest" (page 28), you may be surprised by the help they can offer.
3. Be Diligent. To see results, you'll have to do some work. You'll have to fill out applications, and you might want to retake the ACT or SAT. But persistence should pay off.
4. Save Your Money. Even if you do get several scholarships, expenses like books and dorm supplies will add up. So go ahead and start putting away some cash.
5. Trust God. If God owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10), he can provide for your college education. Ask him for guidance and follow where he leads.